Slaughterhouse Five and Pan’s Labyrinth: A Comparison of Themes, Juxtapositions, and Structure
Guillermo Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five mirror each other in that fact that both feature a main character who struggles to accept the realities of war, but the works vary in various ways. Details from both Pan’s Labyrinth and Slaughterhouse Five illuminate several juxtapositions of birth, death, fantasy and reality that are highlighted by Del Toro and Vonnegut.
The juxtaposition of birth and death between the two works which are both about war provide an intriguing comparison between the concepts of the works. In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut focuses the novella on death as he repeats one statement following every single death, no matter the location, the purpose, or the person, a statement that finds its form in the phrase “So it goes”. Vonnegut chooses to incorporate the repetition of this phrase to serve as a bridge across time periods and settings, highlighting the pointlessness and unavoidability of each and every death caused by the war by framing all of the deaths so casually and dismissively. There is no choice to accept that death comes hand in hand with war, and the only option that people have is to accept this as true. Vonnegut writes in short, declarative sentences to emphasize the dryness and stark realities of deaths in the war, for there is no need to add details that will seem the deaths war seem more glorious and less horrific than they are. He additionally uses irony to highlight the absurdities of the war and the ridiculousness of so many deaths on a large scale. Vonnegut captures this irony by portraying Billy Pilgrim as a very undertrained and under-supplied soldier who was captured by the opponents early on, yet writes so that he was one of the only people at Dresden to survive the fire bombings, proving just how much death does not make sense. Billy Pilgrim’s survival of the bombing in a slaughterhouse, a place that usually ends life and not preserves it, exemplifies this irony and absurdity.
Contrastingly, Del Toro emphasizes birth in Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro begins the Pan’s Labyrinth with an eye level shot Ofelia lying on the ground, but reverses the frames so that they show a resurrection as the blood retreats back into her body rather than showing a death as the blood flows out of her body. The eye level shot connects the audience Ofelia and allows them to immediately initiate their relationship with her that will last from the first scene to the last. Birth imagery fills the movie, from the blood red ink in Ofelia’s book to the closing scene. Del Toro cleverly starts the spread of the crimson ink in the book in the shape of the Faun’s horns that predicts Ofelia’s rebirth in the fantasy world before it morphs into the outline of a uterus that predicts the complications that Carmen will have with her pregnancy. In the closing scene, Del Toro pans the fig tree, the site of the first task, which is shaped similarly to a uterus signifying that she truly has been reborn in the fantasy world after Captain Vidal shot her. These images she is not truly dead and continues to live on her the world of the Faun after her rebirth.
Another incorporated juxtaposition portrays that while the world in Slaughterhouse Five does not exist, the world in Pan’s Labyrinth did exists. Vonnegut’s main clue that proves that Billy’s world full of Tralfamadorians is nonexistent is how he presents events in a chaotic, out of order manner in Slaughterhouse Five. He presents Billy Pilgrim as a man who suffers from the mental trauma he experienced in the war, and resorts to a method of time hopping to cope with that trauma (Vonnegut). Writing in a manner that parallels the ideas of Tralfamadorian time in an inconstant time stream, Vonnegut groups various events sprawled across several years by logic rather than by chronology in a stream of consciousness. This style better reflects the mental chaos that Billy Pilgrim is forced to deal with, and illuminates the confusion that he feels in the world. The stream of consciousness highlights the impact the war had on Billy Pilgram as certain objects or events act as triggers in between the different times as his mind struggles to focus on one aspect of his life. To further demonstrate the nonexistence of Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorian world, Vonnegut creates the symbol of the bird who constantly says “Poo-tee-weet?. This bird conveys a message that there is nothing intelligent to be said about the war, and that words cannot properly express the horrors of war and death. There is nothing intelligent to say about the war and nothing intelligent to think after the war, causing Billy’s mental disorder and invention of the world because he cannot find a way to deal with the world he truly lives in. He cannot find a way to comprehend the war or understand it, so he ends up inventing a realm that helps him cope with the horrors that he has witnessed.
While Vonnegut portrayed Slaughterhouse Five in a less orderly way to reflect the mental chaos engendered by traumatic experiences in the war and Billy’s need to create a world into which he could escape into, Del Toro presents Pan’s Labyrinth in an extremely structured manner. This careful structure, embodied by the Hero’s Journey, key details, and inversion of light amongst various other film techniques, presents the main proof that Ofelia’s world is real in contrast to the proof that Billy Pilgrim’s world is not real.
In the opening sequence of Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro uses the panning technique to establish the setting of the story that the off-screen narrator is telling. As the panning continues to the outside of the fantasy world, the white light suddenly turns to yellow light as the narrator states that the princess perished after failing to adjust to the world outside of her kingdom, but that her father believed that she would one day return in a different form. Indeed, this princess does return in the form of Ofelia. Del Toro includes these narrations to set up the stage for the development of the storyline and the proof that the fantasy world exists, for Ofelia too fails to survive in the reality of the fascist Spain that she lives in. This time, however, her death brings her back home to the kingdom.
Del Toro crafts Ofelia into Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey, a collection of universally common characteristics in fairy tales, myths, and various tales. Ofelia is the hero, and as the movie progresses, more and more characteristics of the journey come into play. Her call to adventure occurs after she inserts the eye into the statue and the insect pops out, for the insect later morphs into a fairy that will lead her to crossing the threshold embodied as the entrance to the Labyrinth. Del Toro presents the Faun as the threshold guardian and mentor figure, and during the first meeting of Ofelia and the Faun, a low angle captures the Faun while a high angle captures Ofelia. This low angle indicates the importance of the Faun and the vital role that he will play in returning Ofelia to the kingdom, and the high angle of Ofelia emphasizes the initial difference between the Faun, a representation of the fantasy world, and Ofelia, a representation of the real world. The Faun presents her with supernatural aid in the form of magical gifts, first the book and later the chalk, mandrake, hourglass, and fairies that will guide her on her journey. Del Toro captures the refusal of the call in Ofelia’s doubt of the Faun’s honesty, but she eventually accepts what he tells her, locating a moon shaped birthmark, for a physical mark is often a characteristic of the hero in the Hero’s Journey, and finally opening the magical book for the first time.
Following this acceptance of her journey, Del Toro presents her with a path of trials on which she will face tests, allies, and enemies. The Faun gives her three tasks: go into the fig tree to retrieve the golden key from the frog, obtain the sword from the Pale Man’s lair, and bring her baby brother to the labyrinth so that a drop of his blood can be used to open the portal. Each of these tasks represents a different test that is paralleled in the real war stricken world as the first task is a test of courage, the second test is a test of obedience and temptation, and the last test is a test of self-sacrifice. The rebels hiding out in the forest represent this courage as they too challenge the beliefs of what is established – while Ofelia challenges the real world by entering the fantasy world of the tree on her first task, the rebels challenge the fascist regime in Spain. During the second task, Del Toro has the fairies act as the heralds of the hero’s journey, trying to warn Ofelia about the dangers of eating the food and awaking the Pale Man who represents the Captain Vidal of the fantasy world. Medium shots of both characters are used when each sits at the head of the table, putting the audience face to face with these two villains and emphasizing this connection. Del Toro features a close up shot of the grapes to not only draw a connection to the grapes that were also present on Captain Vidal’s table, but to portray Ofelia’s focus on the food rather than the dangers and warnings presented to her. When Ofelia fails to obey her orders and eats the grapes, she causes the deaths of two of the fairies and almost loses her own life as well, portraying disobedience that is also presented in the actions of the doctor. Though the doctor is ordered to keep the stutterer alive by Captain Vidal, he chooses to kill the man out of mercy, an action that costs him his life as well as Carmen’s because an army paramedic is forced to deliver the baby rather than an experience doctor. The last test of self-sacrifice is merged between the real world and the fantasy world as Ofelia finally becomes the master of two worlds. A close up shot of the blood dripping from her hands in the labyrinth draws the audience’s attention to this detail that marks her sacrifice, and the tilt of the pillar in the labyrinth indicates its supernatural characteristics as it transports Ofelia from Spain into the throne room. Her choice to prevent harm to her brother represents the refusal of the return in the Hero’s Journey and leads to her demise, but it also leads to her ultimate entrance into the fantasy world and her kingdom as she crosses the return threshold.
Until the closing scene of the movie, Del Toro used white light to represent innocence, naivety, and purity and yellow light to represent the sickness and violence of reality. Yet in the final scene in the throne room, yellow light that represented reality bathes Ofelia as she comes face to face with the King and her mother while she dies in the white light, an indication that perhaps the fantasy world was real all along, but was only truly accessible to Ofelia after she completed her Hero’s Journey. Several other details support the claim that the fantasy world existed, with the first one being the chalk door, for there is no way that Ofelia could have escaped from her locked room to reach her brother without the magic of it. Another detail presents itself when Ofelia is fleeing from Captain Vidal in the Labyrinth. On her magic flight, she reaches a dead end in the labyrinth but the walls open to lead her to the faun. Yet when Vidal reaches the same wall, nothing happens and he has no choice but to turn around (Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth). Ofelia would not have been able to go through that wall entrance if she had simply been imagining it, and she would not have been able to reach the faun before her stepfather caught up with her had the magic not been real. Additionally, once Carmen throws the mandrake into the fire, her health declines immediately. The mandrake was boosting her health, and without it, she ends up dying.
The structure of Pan’s Labyrinth contrasts drastically with the lack of structure in Slaughterhouse Five. If the world in Pan’s Labyrinth had truly been nonexistent, Del Toro would not have organized the film in a way that clearly followed the archetype of the hero in the Hero’s Journey, but rather in a less organized way that reflected Ofelia’s thoughts as the war raged around her. Additionally, the emphasis on birth in Pan’s Labyrinth, rather than on death such as in Slaughterhouse Five, contributes to the idea that Ofelia was indeed reborn in the world of the Faun while portraying that Billy had no world to escape into and truly did die.
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